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Pope Francis answers questions put to him by journalists on the flight from Antananarivo to Rome Pope Francis answers questions put to him by journalists on the flight from Antananarivo to Rome  (ANSA)

Pope: we have fewer children because we are too attached to individual well-being

During the in-flight press conference on his way back from three African nations, Pope Francis recalls the joy of the children he met and says the State has the duty to care for families. He says that xenophobia is “a disease” and appeals for the safeguarding of cultural identity in the face of ideological colonization. He reflects on criticism he receives and answers a question regarding the rumours of a possible schism in the Church saying “I pray it will not happen, but I am not afraid.”

By Alessandro De Carolis and Andrea Tornielli – flight from Antananarivo to Rome

People lining the streets lifting their children and thrusting them towards him as he goes by: for the Pope no gesture is more beautiful than this. It’s a gesture he witnessed in the Philippines, in Cartagena, in Colombia. He saw it again in Madagascar. “Children are the wealth of the poor,” he told the reporters listening to him speak three hours after take-off from Antananarivo during the customary press conference on the flight back to Italy. Pope Francis spoke at length about the trip, he answered questions put to him by journalists from the places he has just visited, and then he digressed, opening his heart to some of the experiences that most left a mark on him. His memory went to the esplanade of red-robed youth during the Vigil and Mass in Madagascar, to the million, perhaps “the mere 800 thousand” faithful he quipped, sitting on the ground with blankets, and backpacks and children and enough faith to stand up to wind, hunger and poverty. “There were poor people, there were people who had gone hungry in order to be there, but they were joyful”.  They were “the people who wanted to be with the Pope”, an experience, it is clear, he will never forget. And he warned against those, people or groups, who “detach themselves from that sense of popular joy”. The “sadness of those who are lonely”, he said, is one of the “first signs” of those who have “forgotten their cultural roots”.

Family and youth, “a State duty”

Facing Africa, “which has so much young life” there is “grandmother Europe” that has stopped having children. The Pope dwelt at length on this concept, offering what he described a “personal” reading of the demographic decline of the Old Continent. “I think it is rooted in well-being”, that attitude that chooses a life filled with goods and tranquility and expresses a general distrust in the future over the wealth of having a child. In contrast, Pope Francis says he appreciates the Prime Minister of Mauritius who told him he wants to provide the country with free education and vocational training for young people. Recalling the episode of a little girl taken care of by a policeman during the Mass in Port Louis because she had lost her parents in the crowd, he took the opportunity to point out that: “The State must take care of families, of young people. It is the duty of the State to sustain them in their development.”

Peace is forgiveness, not triumphalism

The Pope had just reflected on the long peace process and on the agreement signed in Mozambique in 1992 thanks to the efforts of the Saint Egidio Community, when he echoed the historic radio message of Pius XII on the eve of the Second World War: “nothing is lost with peace, everything may be lost with war”. Pope Francis revealed that he cried before the Redipuglia Memorial and every time a commemoration has led him to reflect on the wickedness of war. But, he added, the trumpets of triumphalism should not be blown. As everywhere, peace “is fragile”; it’s to be treated like a newborn baby, “with much tenderness” and “much forgiveness”.

A Mozambican reporter asked him for a thought on xenophobia which is widespread in his country; the Pope was quick to point out that this is not only an African problem.  “Xenophobia is a disease”, he said, the same disease that led Nazi-Fascism to justify racial laws in the last century. Or, staying in Africa, the same disease that gave life, with the variant of “tribalism,” to the horrible history page of the Rwandan genocide. “And often,” he said, “xenophobia rides the wave of political populism” and one must “fight against this”. Regarding his African visit, the Pope also greatly appreciated the interreligious brotherhood experienced in different ways in the three countries he visited. “Religious respect is important, he affirmed, that’s why I tell missionaries not to proselytize”.  A religious proposal that seeks proselytes and does not teach to “worship God in truth" is simply “not Christian”.

Communication of facts must be human

As promised in the outgoing journey, the Pope gave special space to the correspondent of EFE, the Spanish news agency that is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its foundation. He did not rule out a visit to Spain, even though he reiterated his preference for the “smaller countries”. And in the wake of another question, he was able to offer his point of view on the role of communication. Priority, he pointed out quoting a recent study, must go to “facts” which are distinct from the considerations that surround them. The mixing of these two aspects, he clarified, risks ruining the first. And furthermore, he added, “communication needs to be human, and by saying human, I mean constructive, that is, it needs to be beneficial for others”, as well as never being a “means of war”.

Colonization and the environment

Other questions directed Pope Francis' answers to topics that have often been brought up before. The role of international organizations, which he hopes will be strengthened, and the behaviour of former colonialist countries:  those, he said, who when they restore freedom to the occupied nation, are always tempted “to leave with something in their pockets”. In any case, he stressed, what worries him more today, rather than the almost non-existent geographical colonizations, are the ideological ones, “which go against the nature” of a people in the name of a homogenization that wipes out identities.

On the protection of the environment - a pillar of his teaching and of his trip to Africa - Francis recalls that "we need to defend ecology, biodiversity, that is our life, to defend the oxygen, that is our life", and he recalled the “plastic-free” commitment of the Vatican.  

Regarding corruption, an evil that is sometimes painted as an endemic African evil, he replied: “We have those who recruit and benefit from cheap labour in Europe, it was not invented by the Africans. The maid who is paid a third of what she is due, the Africans did not invent this, the women deceived and exploited for prostitution in the centers of our cities. Here too there is this type of exploitation, not only environmental, but also human”.

Schism and gentleness

The last answer refers to criticism of his pontificate by a segment of the American Church, as narrated recently in a book published in France. “Criticisms, he said, are not coming only from the Americans, they are coming a bit from everywhere, even from the Curia. At least those who voice them have the benefit of the honesty of having said them.”  And on the possibility of a schism, he does not appear ruffled.  In the Church, he noted, there is always “the option for a schism”. “I'm not afraid of schisms; I pray that there will be none”. A schism, he observed, is always “an elitist separation stemming from ideology which is not doctrine”. A rigid morality can fuel “possible pseudo-schismatic Christian developments that will end badly.”  For this reason, he concluded, “we need to be gentle with those who are tempted by these attacks, they are going through a tough time, we must accompany them gently”.

10 September 2019, 20:47